Big retailers back safety accord in Bangladesh

Shoppers wait on line at the checkout counter to purchase goods at an H&M store, in Atlanta. Swedish fashion retailer H&M said Monday, that it will sign up to a legally binding fire and building safety plan drawn up by unions in Bangladesh, following the deaths of hundreds of garment workers in a building collapse there last month. (AP/David Goldman)

David Goldman

H&M, a trendy Swedish chain that’s the largest clothing buyer in Bangladesh, on Monday said it would sign a five-year, legally binding contract that calls for retailers to take on a greater role in ensuring the garment factories in Bangladesh are safe. Within hours, C&A of the Netherlands, British retailers Tesco and Primark, and Spain’s Inditex, owner of the Zara chain, followed with their own announcements.

The companies join two other retailers that signed the agreement last year: PVH, which makes clothes under the Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Izod labels, and German retailer Tchibo. The agreement has since been expanded to five years from two.

The pact requires that the companies conduct independent safety inspections, make their reports on factory conditions public and cover the costs for needed repairs. It also calls for them to pay up to $500,000 annually toward the effort, to stop doing business with any factory that refuses to make safety upgrades and to allow workers and their unions to have a voice in factory safety.

The safety agreement was applauded by labor groups who say it goes a long way toward improving working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry, which long have been known to be potentially dangerous.

Based on the seven companies that plan to participate in the pact, between 500 and 1,000 of the 5,000 factories operated in Bangladesh will be covered, according to Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a workers’ rights group that had been one of the organizations pushing for the agreement.

“This agreement is exactly what is needed to finally bring an end to the epidemic of fire and building disasters that have taken so many lives in the garment industry in Bangladesh,” he said.

The pact comes as the working conditions of Bangladesh’s garment industry have come under increased scrutiny. Since 2005, at least 1,800 workers have been killed in the Bangladeshi garment industry in factory fires and building collapses, according to research by the advocacy group International Labor Rights Forum.

The two latest tragedies in the country’s garment industry have raised the alarm. The building collapse on April 24 was the industry’s worst disaster in history. And it came months after a fire in another garment factory in Bangladesh in November killed 112 workers.

Following the latest tragedy, Walt Disney Co. announced this month that it is stopping production of its branded goods in Bangladesh. But most retailers have vowed to stay and promised to work for change. H&M and Wal-Mart, the second largest buyer of clothing Bangladesh, have said they have no plans to leave. Other big chains such as The Children’s Place, Mango, J.C. Penney, Gap, Benetton and Sears have said the same.

The pressure has increased for those who stay to make changes. Since April’s building collapse, Avaaz, a human rights group with 21 million members worldwide, has gotten more than 900,000 signatures on a petition pushing Gap and H&M to commit to the proposal. And in the U.S., university chapters of United Students Against Sweatshops are helping to stage demonstrations against Gap in more than a dozen cities including Seattle, Los Angeles and New York.

The safety agreement comes about a year and a half after a fire and safety proposal drawn up by labor unions was first rejected by many clothing companies as too costly and legally binding. The latest agreement is a revised version of that proposed pact.

Forty companies, including Wal-Mart, H&M, and J.C. Penney, met with labor rights groups days after the building collapse. They met in Germany to discuss how the industry could improve safety conditions in Bangladesh, with labor groups setting Wednesday as the deadline for companies to commit to the plan.

Among the holdouts: Gap Inc. was close to signing last fall but then backed out and announced its own plan that included hiring an independent fire safety expert to inspect factories. Gap didn’t immediate respond to queries from The Associated Press on Monday.

And Kevin Gardner, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which is the second-largest producer of clothing in Bangladesh behind H&M, said on Monday that the retailer had nothing to announce at this time.

H&M said Monday that the agreement is a “pragmatic step,” and urged more brands to reach a pact that covers the entire industry of 5,000 factories in Bangladesh.

“Our strong presence in Bangladesh gives us the opportunity to contribute to the improvement of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and contribute to the community’s development,” H&M spokeswoman Helena Hermersson said in a statement. “We can slowly but surely contribute to lasting changes.”

Only a few companies, including Britain’s Primark and Canada’s Loblaw Inc. which owns the Joe Fresh clothing line, have acknowledged that suppliers were making clothes for them at the site of the April building collapse, and have promised to compensate workers and their families.

In a statement emailed to The Associated Press on Monday, Primark said the agreement was the most likely way to “bring effective and sustainable change for the better to the Bangladeshi garment industry.”